While neighboring states move ahead on wind energy, Vermont is spinning its wheels
The Holsteins grazing in the pasture of the St. Lawrence Valley Dairy in Chateaugay, N.Y., seem oblivious to the massive white turbines churning the air above them. Chris Recore’s 96 milkers hear louder noises as they chew their cud: the drone of the milking machine, the rumble of tractors, even the belching and mooing of the herd itself.
Press your ear against the tower — it’s about the girth of a California Redwood — and it’s quieter than a hair dryer. When the grass grows back, Recore expects his cows to graze directly under the spinning blades, unfazed.
“They don’t make half the noise people think they do,” he says. “Unless you’re listening for it, you can’t hear nothing.”
Recore should know. For the last nine months, he and his family have been living in the midst of the nearly completed Clinton and Ellenburg wind parks. From his pasture on the Clinton/Franklin county line, Recore can see 32 turbines, each one standing 389 feet high from its base to the tip of the blade — taller than the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C., and London’s Big Ben.
Each turbine can generate 1.5 megawatts, enough electricity to power 500 homes. Eventually, the two parks will boast 122 turbines, enough to power 60,000 homes with clean and renewable energy. That’s assuming, of course, the wind is blowing, which it does much of the time on this high plateau north of the Adirondack Park.
The wind parks’ owner, Noble Environmental Power, was founded in 2004 and already has 4000 megawatts of wind power in development nationwide. This summer, Noble plans to break ground on a 150-turbine project in Altona and Chateaugay, east of Recore’s farm. When those turbines are up, this will be the largest wind complex east of the Mississippi, capable of powering 136,000 homes.
A few miles away on Route 11 in Churubusco is Dick’s Country Store, an eclectic establishment that sells everything from cold cuts to shotguns to high-end electric guitars. Owner Dick Decosse, who’s lived here since 1962, is wary of giving another press interview about the turbines outside his door. He says the wind parks were never very controversial in the first place, despite news articles to the contrary.
“[Reporters] always want to keep all the controversy going,” he grouses. “There isn’t any controversy anymore. It’s a done deal! But controversy sells newspapers, so that’s what they want.”
Decosse claims that, before the turbines even went up, at least 80 percent of the community was in favor of them. Such support is understandable in this rural, economically depressed region. According to Noble Environmental, the Clinton project alone will inject more than $150 million into the local economy over the next 20 years. Individual landowners can earn between $9000 and $12,000 annually per turbine. Decosse and Recore both say that since the towers went up, their property taxes have gone down.
“It’s tough to make a go living off the land these days, so this will help a lot of farmers,” Decosse adds. “It’s a resource that blows across my front door, whether I use it or not. So, why not use it?”
Across Lake Champlain, many Vermonters are asking the same question. While wind energy sails along at a healthy clip in New York and much of New England, in Vermont it’s been as flaccid as a limp windsock.
Currently, all of Vermont’s grid-scale wind power — a meager 6 megawatts total — comes from 11 turbines in Searsburg, in southern Vermont. A 16-turbine project in Sheffield is due to break ground later this year, but that is by no means a done deal. If it does move forward, the modest project would increase Vermont’s wind energy output fivefold.
That’s still a pittance compared to Vermont’s neighbors. New York State has set a goal of meeting 25 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources, including wind, by 2013. Several weeks ago, Canadian utility giant Hydro-Québec announced it had accepted 15 bids for 2004 megawatts of new wind power, which is due to come online between 2011 and 2015. Hydro-Québec expects to be generating at least 3500 megawatts from wind by 2017.
On this side of the border, wind energy has gained the most support in Maine. Last month, both houses of the Maine Legislature unanimously approved a bill allowing the development of at least 2000 megawatts of wind power in the state by 2015, and at least 3000 by 2020. That would make Maine one of the top wind-energy generators on the East Coast.
Massachusetts’ wind energy plans are more modest, but only New Hampshire, which lacks the transmission infrastructure that Vermont has, generates less of its power from wind than does the Green Mountain State. Peter Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who was instrumental in that state’s landmark wind legislation, is perplexed by Vermont’s reluctant embrace of wind power.
“It’s disappointing that the state that got Searsburg built, the first utility-scale wind project in New England, has had trouble following it up with anything else of significance,” Didisheim says.
Despite the state’s clean-and-green ethic and polls showing that three out of four residents would support it in their own backyards, wind projects have faced stiff regulatory resistance in Vermont. Proponents say that getting approval from the Public Service Board (PSB) is difficult, if not arbitrary. That’s not surprising, considering that Gov. Jim Douglas has made no secret of his distaste for wind projects on Vermont’s ridgelines. The Department of Public Service (DPS) has been lukewarm in its support for wind as well. Of the 29 applications submitted to DPS this year for $3.2 million in state money for clean-energy projects, only one wind project was funded.
Wind energy advocates point out that if the ultimate goal is to keep projects “Vermont-sized,” as Douglas has suggested, having a costly and time-consuming permitting process is actually counterproductive. As it is now, only big corporations and the ultra-wealthy can afford to stay in the game.
Andy Perchlik with Renewable Energy Vermont, a nonprofit trade organization, ticks off a list of several wind projects, both large and small, that died because the developers couldn’t afford the various studies required by the state. “Right now, we’re making everyone go through this permitting process that was built for a different paradigm,” he argues. “How many companies,” Perchlik asks, “can afford to risk three years and $3 million?”
As Seven Days first reported in December 2007, the PSB has long maintained a double standard for wind development relative to other utilities, notably, nuclear power. Unlike the Vermont Yankee plant, the proposed Sheffield wind farm is required to be bonded and to maintain a fully funded decommissioning account before it could be licensed and constructed — despite the fact that dismantling a wind turbine is vastly cheaper and safer than is decommissioning a spent nuclear reactor.
However, it doesn’t take an entire government bureaucracy to stymie wind power in Vermont. Sometimes a few neighbors — or, in the case of Teal Farm in Huntington, one man — can bring an entire project to a grinding halt. While wind opponents say the Huntington case highlights how the system is supposed to function, advocates say it helps explain why wind power in Vermont is in serious trouble.
Teal Farm, a 1297-acre spread at the knee of Camel’s Hump, was conceived on an elegantly simple idea: Human systems, like natural ecosystems, can be mutually supportive rather than depletive.
Located on a remote hillside, Teal Farm is susceptible to frequent power outages caused by blow-downs, ice storms and tree branches touching the power lines. To counter the whims of the grid, Melissa Hoffman, founder and executive director of the LivingFuture Foundation, set out to create a self-contained and self-sustaining system — residences, orchards, croplands, even a food-processing facility — in which all energy needs are derived from the sun, whether through photovoltaic panels, micro-hydroelectric systems, biomass, biofuels or wind power.
Toward that end, Hoffman, with help from the foundation’s associate director Amy Seidl, designed an energy system that would ebb and flow with nature’s cycles. When the sun is shining, the farm would draw its power from solar panels. When it isn’t, the wind would turn a 6-kilowatt turbine on a nearby hillside. Any excess power would be stored in batteries or “banked” by pumping water uphill into a pond that could later be released to generate micro-hydroelectric power.
But as Hoffman readily admits today, “The bubble of our naiveté was broken in how complex and grandiose our vision was.” Part of that naiveté included the very real challenges of getting a permit for something as seemingly benign as a 6-kilowatt wind turbine.
In October 2006, Teal Farm applied for a certificate of public good from the PSB. The board rejected the application, ruling that the Teal Farm wind project would have “an undue adverse effect” on the aesthetics and scenic natural beauty of the area. Hoffman filed an amended application, offering to lower the tower in exchange for installing a larger, 15-kilowatt turbine — with excess power fed back into the grid. The PSB again rejected the permit and urged the LivingFuture Foundation to work with its neighbors “to find a location that would be acceptable to all parties in this proceeding.”
One alternative site considered was a grassy meadow, known as East Knoll, about 500 feet below the existing tower. But according to Hoffman, the East Knoll is completely blocked by hillsides to the southeast and northwest, the direction of the prevailing winds. The foundation’s own wind expert has said the energy output at East Knoll would probably be diminished 22 percent, raising the likelihood that it’s not feasible to erect a turbine there at all. As Seidl puts it, “It’s sort of like someone saying, ‘Here are some solar panels. Now go put them in the shade.’ It doesn’t make any sense.”
As is typically required of permit applicants, Hoffman and Seidl had notified all 32 of their neighbors to find out if any of them objected to the turbine and its 120-foot tower, which had already been erected on a 1650-foot wooded hilltop. As it happened, only one found the project objectionable: E. Miles Prentice III. Prentice is a New York City attorney who owns a spectacular piece of real estate with nearly unobstructed, panoramic views of Mt. Abe, Camel’s Hump and more of the Green Mountains. His house sits more than 2000 feet from Teal Farm’s wind tower. From his property, it looks like a needle poking above the tree line.
By his own admission — or, rather, that of his Hinesburg attorney, David Rath (Prentice declined an interview request from Seven Days) — the New Yorker only visits his Vermont property three or four times a year. Rath, however, resents that the controversy is being framed as a conflict between a wealthy, out-of-state resident and local residents. He says it’s “irrelevant” that his client rarely visits his Vermont property, and he’s quick to point out that Prentice was born in Montpelier and serves on the board of directors for the Shelburne Museum.
Rath says his client is concerned about a different landscape, namely, Vermont’s scenic ridges. It’s a position, he adds, upheld by every regulatory body that’s reviewed the case. “Many people from Huntington have told me that they’re grateful Miles Prentice is protecting the aesthetic quality of that ridgeline,” he says.
But others express disgust that the Teal Farm windmill isn’t turning yet. Anjanette DeCarlo Merino says the project is “about more than just the turbine.” Hoffman intends to incorporate the community into her project, offering summer jobs to teens, providing a local and sustainable food resource and, if permitted, wind power for nearby homes and businesses.
“As a community, we accepted this project and feel very attached to what Melissa is doing up there,” Merino says. “Is Vermont a state that’s just going to cater to our big-money people who have vacation places here?”
Fred Bisbee, a carpenter who’s lived in Huntington for 13 years and can see the wind tower from his house, agrees. “To be honest, I think windmills are beautiful,” he says. “And no one ever asked me if I mind driving by 800 telephone poles in the course of a day.”
In the last 20 months, the LivingFuture Foundation, which has already spent $35,000 on the turbine and another $60,000 on the tower, has poured $80,000 into legal fees related to the project. And the PSB has informed Hoffman that if the foundation wants to move the tower, they’ll have to start the permitting process all over again.
Hoffman and Seidl have yet to figure out what they’ll do next. But they fear the precedent that will be set for future wind projects. “As it currently stands, one man’s view can thwart an entire project,” Hoffman says. “This is really going to change the landscape around how permitting can go.”
Wind-power advocates hope that a bill signed March 19 by Gov. Jim Douglas will make it easier for wind projects to pass regulatory muster. The bill, S.209, lowers some of the regulatory barriers for developing both small- and large-scale wind projects. Known as the Vermont Energy Efficiency and Affordability Act, it “puts out a welcome mat to large-scale wind developers,” says Rep. Robert Dostis (D-Waterbury), who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Among other things, S.209 provides favorable property tax rates for large-scale wind projects and eases the Act 250 requirement for erecting meteorological towers, the first step in determining where to site turbines. For small-scale wind projects, the bill also made improvements to Vermont’s “net metering” law — that is, the ability of turbine owners to offset their electricity costs by feeding excess power back into the grid. Basically, the new law makes it easier for homeowners, farmers, small businesses and even whole communities to invest cooperatively in small- or medium-sized windmills and share the net-metering benefits.
Dostis, whose legislative district includes Huntington and Teal Farm, inserted language into S.209 that calls on the PSB to develop clear aesthetic criteria for net-metered wind projects that are less than 150 feet tall.
“We as a state have to get real about our energy future!” Dostis says. “There are tradeoffs with every single power source we have. But for people to just sit back and take no responsibility for the impact their appliances have on the environment is just irresponsible.”
But, as renewable energy sources go, is wind power really all it’s cracked up to be?
Paul Kenyon is probably one of the few Vermonters who can say precisely where every kilowatt of electricity in his house comes from and where it goes. A design engineer who installs small energy systems, including wind turbines, Kenyon lives off the grid in a house in Bridport that draws about one-fifth the electricity of the average American home.
Years ago, he worked on the Searsburg project and helped install the original meteorological towers for siting the turbines. Every other month, he visited the site to collect data, sometimes hiking in, other times getting there on skis, snowshoes, ATVs or snowmobiles.
“When they finally put the turbines in, they put a chain-link fence around the whole thing and that was the end of that recreation area,” Kenyon recalls. “So, that woke me up a bit.”
Indeed, the more Kenyon researched industrial wind power, the more he questioned the conventional wisdom that says industrial wind power makes sense. Aside from his aesthetic concern that developers will chew up Vermont’s ridgelines with spinning pinwheels, he argues that the nature of wind will never eliminate the need for other sources of power.
“It will never replace a coal plant and it will never replace Vermont Yankee,” he argues. “If we put only a few in here and there, they’re nothing but of symbolic value.”
If such an iconoclastic position seems counterproductive to his own business interests, it is. Kenyon explains that people frequently call him and say they want to put up a small wind turbine. He visits the property, takes some measurements and then explains how much it’ll cost and how much electricity it’ll produce. More times than not, he says, people decide not to buy one.
“The most common thing I hear is, ‘Wow! You’ve given us something to think about,’” he adds. “I could be feathering my nest if I wanted to, but it’s not ethical to do that.”
Kenyon suspects one reason wind power is popular is its iconic image. In the face of dire warnings about global warming and concerns about the state’s energy future when Vermont Yankee closes, people want to do something, anything, that’s green, even if it’s not cost-effective.
Kenyon suggests a more practical, though less sexy solution: Take all the money Vermont would invest in industrial wind and pour it into education, energy efficiency and conservation. While the wind only blows in Vermont 20 percent of the time, efficiency and conservation would be effective 100 percent of the time, and could “trump” whatever savings wind has to offer.
Kenyon readily admits that his opinion puts him squarely in the minority in Vermont, even among the experts, and he’s lost friendships over it. Still, he believes the issue is more complex than it seems and is not easily “sound-biteable.”
“We should be very careful about what we do to our beautiful spaces,” he says. “What we do to them, we do to ourselves.”